Julien Donkey-Boy (1999): United States – directed by Harmony Korine (uncredited)
Rated R by the MPAA – contains language and disturbing themes and content
Julien Donkey-Boy, Harmony Korine’s second feature after Gummo [review here] is rather different from his debut. It’s interesting to note that it is also called Dogme #6, the sixth of the Dogme films. It has a certificate at the beginning certifying that it’s a Dogme film. Dogme films were created by a couple Dutch filmmakers, Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vintenberg, and the goal was to reduce film to its most essential elements. No props were to be brought in, no artificial light could be used, only diagetic sound (ie. no soundtrack, all sound and music is happening on the screen) only hand held cameras, etc. The concept is interesting, but the execution is usually less than engaging, although the first Dogme, Festen (The Celebration), has a powerful story backing up its unique production.
With Julien Donkey-Boy Korine opted for low-quality cameras, most of them handheld, and the film looks terrible. Many of the images are so out of focus or fuzzy that they merely suggest what is happening and the viewer’s brain has to fill in the pieces. This isn’t a bad technique for experimental short films, or Stan Brakhage’s work, but it is distracting and detrimental to a feature film.
For his sophomore effort Korine chose to shoot in New York, with a story involving an absurdly dysfunctional family. There are three siblings, beginning with Julien (Ewen Bremner). He has a younger sister, Pearl (Chloë Sevigny), and a brother, Chris (Evan Neumann). They live with their father and also have a rarely-seen granny. In a bizarre twist of casting, the father is played by Werner Herzog, one of Germany’s most famous, best, and craziest directors.
Here Herzog plays a terribly abusive father. His wife has died, leaving him with Julien, who’s mentally handicapped and a bit dimwitted, Pearl, who’s the most normal but is pregnant, and Chris, who’s a pansy. The father doesn’t help much. He occasionally wears a gas mask, gets high on cough syrup and dances around, and emotionally and verbally abuses everyone. He complains that Chris isn’t tough enough, even though he’s practicing wrestling and crawls up stairs on his arms. He says that Pearl’s a slut and will never learn to play the harp. He makes Julien slap himself because he’s so stupid. And at one point he offers the occasionally feminine Chris $10 to wear one of his dead wife’s dresses.
All of this dysfunction sounds unpleasant, and it is. Unfortunately the film is also so boring that most viewers won’t care. It is difficult to connect with anyone or anything of the strange events. A few of the scenes are interesting, such as when Julien talks to his dead mother on the phone (his mother appears to be a boy dressed up like a girl with a lot of makeup). Another scene shows the family, dressed in white, going to a black church, and Julien sings and dances. During the sermon he sits and ponders the message, perhaps reflecting on his past sins. There are a number of interesting folks at the blind school at which Julien works. There’s a black albino, straight from Alabama, who sings a song to the same effect. There is also a guy with no arms who plays the drums with his feet. And then there is a performer who eats cigarettes.
The film opens up interestingly enough, as Julien is out in a park and kills a young boy with whom he’s been playing. He’s not sure of what he’s doing, but understands he’s done something wrong. Perhaps that’s why the church scene is so interesting. However, this thread goes nowhere. There is never mention of the dead kid or what happened. Julien is quite disturbed, and at one point it’s intimated that he is the father of Pearl’s child.
At the end of the movie, when something actually happens plotwise, things get a little interesting. Pearl has a problem with the baby and what transpires is mildly thought-provoking and moving. However, apart from these moments the film is a jumble of difficult images and hard-to-discern sounds. I can understand that Korine was trying to do something different, and he certainly succeeded. Unfortunately the film will be inaccessible to most folks, and, while I like new things and different ideas in film, it never fully connected with me. It’s hard to recommend this to anyone. People interested in avante-garde film and art might be interested, but it’s also rather boring and difficult to sit through. Viewers interested in odd people might enjoy portions of it, but go watch a John Waters movie instead. I did not particularly enjoy Julien Donkey-Boy, even if I can sort of appreciate what it and Korine are trying to do.